Six journalists from the independent Azerbaijani investigative website Abzas Media have been under arrest since November 2023. They had previously transmitted elements of their investigations to the Paris-based Forbidden Stories collective, which took over their work in collaboration with 14 European news organisations in the “The Baku Connection” project, including FRANCE 24 and RFI. This article focuses on the tensions surrounding a mine in the west of the country, whose gold ends up in the products of major high-tech brands.
The anger was visible on their faces as they faced off against squadrons of riot police sent to silence them. On June 20, 2023, residents of the village of Söyüdlü, in western Azerbaijan, demonstrated to reject the construction of a new reservoir to store toxic waste from a gold mine that has been operating in the area since 2012. An initial reservoir had been installed by Anglo Asian Mining, the British company that operates the mine, but it was close to capacity. The villagers believe it had led to soil and river water pollution, and that the fumes escaping from it were causing an increase in respiratory illnesses.
Video of tensions at the Gedabek mine in Azerbaijan published on Facebook by the account Azərbaycan Respublikası on june 21, 2023.
The first reservoir, with a capacity of 6 million cubic metres, is located a few hundred meters from Söyüdlü. To separate the gold from the rock, Anglo Asian Mining uses cyanide, and dumps the sludge generated by the process, which contains toxic products including cyanide and arsenic, into the reservoir, known as a tailings pond. The company says that the quantities of waste do not threaten the environment or the health of local residents.
That is not how the residents feel. But their efforts to show their frustration in June 2023 were cut short: images posted on social media show police in riot gear spraying tear gas in the faces of demonstrators, particularly elderly women, and using rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
‘The police set up roadblocks and turned back journalists who were not under government control’
Interviewed by the Forbidden Stories consortium, freelance journalist Elmaddin Shamilzade recounts:
There were about 300 policemen. It was far too many. The local administrator came to talk to the people. Then he wanted to take them to some kind of government building. He wanted to have a conversation without journalists and activists. The villagers refused, and got permission for the media to follow the discussions.
The next day, the police set up roadblocks and turned back journalists who weren’t under government control. They wouldn’t let them into the village. They checked passports, even those of the villagers.
On Shamilzade’s return to Baku, he was arrested for posting on Facebook a photo of two policemen in Söyüdlü. He recounts being beaten, tortured and threatened with rape, which prompted him to give the police his password so that they could delete the photo. He has since left the country.
At least four journalists were arrested on June 22, 2023 for reporting on the Söyüdlü protests. Three were arrested on the spot, including Nargiz Absalamova of Abzas Media. She accuses the police officers who arrested them of violence against her and her colleagues. According to the police, the three people arrested were not wearing “any distinctive signs” identifying them as journalists. The fourth journalist was arrested in Baku on June 23: the director of Abzas Media, Ülvi Hasanli, was detained for distributing photos of the two police officers accused by the journalists of arresting them. He was released after four hours.
On-site samples and questions
In a video filmed by Abzas Media in Söyüdlü, Gadabay district administrator Orkhan Mursalov is seen telling protesters: “The reservoir has been there for more than 11 years. Have there been any complaints about the reservoir in all those years? No! Why did the inhabitants conclude in one day that the lake endangered their lives? It’s likely that people are being misinformed. Who’s misinforming them? Unfortunately, social networks.”
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Azerbaijani state media accused first the West, and then Russia, of organizing the protests. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in power since 2003, finally reacted to the events on July 11, 2023. He said the demonstrations were the work of “provocateurs… some of whom are hiding in Azerbaijan, others abroad”. He defended the right of the local residents to demonstrate (a way of polishing his image with his people, one activist told us). He accused the country’s minister of ecology of being “negligent,” adding: “As a result, a foreign investor is poisoning our nature.” The Azerbaijani government had granted the right to operate the mine to Anglo Asian Mining, whose CEO and main shareholder, Iranian-American Reza Vaziri, is said by the company’s CFO Bill Morgan to be a “personal friend of the president”. The Azerbaijani government also shares profits from the mine with the company. (The company lists its second-biggest shareholder as former US governor John Sununu, who did not respond to requests for comment for this report.)
In mid-July, the Azerbaijani authorities ordered tests to be carried out on the site, and the mine suspended operations while the investigation was carried out.
On September 28, 2023, Anglo Asian Mining announced the findings in a press release. The statement said that analyses carried out by the British laboratory Micon and the Azerbaijani laboratory Iqlim indicated there was no reason to worry about pollution at the site. “Radiation levels at Gedabek are aligned with natural background conditions for the area,” the statement says. It also states that “no issues of concern were identified with air quality”, that “no cyanide was found in any soil sample above the limits of analytical detection (<0.06 milligrams per kilogram)”, and that “very low concentrations of cyanide (0.013 to 0.23 milligrams per litre) were found in four water samples… out of 35 samples taken”. However, neither the details nor the methodology of the investigation were published by Anglo Asian or by the laboratories involved. Neither the company nor the laboratories responded to our requests for access to the data.
On November 7, 2023, the company announced that it had signed an “action plan” with the Azerbaijani government to restart the mine’s operations. The plan called on the company to “improve environmental monitoring of the site” and “establish a community relations department”, without giving further detail. The company announced that rather than building a new waste reservoir, it would raise the height of the existing reservoir’s dam so that it could continue to receive waste.
We asked Anglo Asian Mining to provide detailed results of the analyses for this report, as well as details of the dam-raising project. The company referred us to its public press releases, and sent this statement from its CEO, Reza Vaziri:
‘This toxic water is seeping through the rocks’
Without precise data from the analyses, and without samples to analyse independently, it is impossible to assess the risk of pollution at the Gedabek mine. A member of the Azerbaijani NGO Ecofront had taken water and soil samples around the lake during the June 2023 protests, but he was arrested and his samples were confiscated. The NGO remains convinced that the lake is a source of pollution, and that its contaminated water is seeping into the soil. One of its members, Javid Gara, explains:
In recent years, the lake has been enlarged. Not by structural engineering: it’s trucks digging up the soil to make it bigger. As they dig, they cause more vibrations, more cracks and more leaks. The toxic water seeps through the rocks to the river and springs below the reservoir. The village of Soyüdlü is above the reservoir and therefore not directly affected, but it does have an agricultural life. The villagers take their livestock, cows and sheep, below the reservoir, but they never use the water downstream from the reservoir. That’s because they think it’s contaminated.
Dust, odours, soil infiltration
Two geologists contacted by our consortium confirm these concerns, noting that the reservoir was dug directly into the rock, raising the possibility that its contents could seep into the soil and groundwater. They sent us this analysis: “You can see from the satellite images that the company dug into the valley floor. This makes it easier to bring the tailings stored in the lake into contact with the deeper layers of soil, and therefore increases the chances of disrupting underground and surface flows.”
Images taken by Ecofront show that below the tailings dam that contains the reservoir a small complex has been set up to alleviate any potential leaks. “Between the retaining structure and the natural topography, you have heterogeneities, so there’s bound to be leakage,” the geologists told us. Anglo Asian Mining says the filtration complex consists of a “reed bed”, artificially planted reeds that biologically filter potentially polluted water before releasing it back into the river.
In the absence of data about the reed bed, the geologists said they could not evaluate its effectiveness. But they caution: “A reed bed won’t recover everything, but it will absorb some of the elements. Such systems can at best reduce the concentration of metals in the water, but cannot necessarily produce a drastic reduction that would allow the safe release of the water back into the river”. Ecofront, for its part, is convinced that the complex does not filter the lake water sufficiently, and pollutes the river.
Video filmed by the NGO Ecofront below the tailings dam at the Gedabek mine in Azerbaijan. The NGO believes the facility does not sufficiently filter water from the dam before it flows into the local river.
Residents also complain about odours emitted by the reservoir, says Ecofront’s Gara.
When it’s hot, all this liquid starts to evaporate. This vapour on hot summer days is unbearable. Humans shouldn’t live in these conditions. This kind of reservoir should not be near a residential area.
In videos filmed by Abzas Media and other independent media in June, residents complain of respiratory illnesses. Some report an increase in cancer cases since the reservoir was built. But the repression of the protests in June has apparently had an effect: no resident of Söyüdlü dared to speak directly to our consortium, and we were unable to obtain any medical reports from local doctors and hospitals.
The same applies to the nearby town of Gadabay, which adjoins the mine site. Geologists and toxicologists we consulted all told us the town’s immediate proximity to the mine without any doubt exposes its inhabitants to dust from the mine, carried by wind or rainwater.
From Swiss refineries to cell phones
Where does Gedabek’s gold end up? According to Anglo Asian Mining’s 2022 annual report, two Swiss refineries buy from the company. The first, Argor-Heraeus, told us it had terminated its relationship with Anglo Asian: “As part of our Know Your Customer update process started in 2022, Anglo Asian Mining did not provide all the required information” explains the refinery, which states that it “blocked the company in May 2023”, before the crackdown on protests.
The other refinery, MKS Pamp, told us that on the basis of the analyses carried out in the summer of 2023 they would “continue to engage with Anglo Asian Mining.” Among the refinery’s customers are the major hi-tech brands: Apple, Samsung, Tesla, HP… none of whom responded to our questions. Microsoft was the only major brand to respond, stating that it “requires its suppliers (…) to comply with all applicable laws and regulations regarding labor, ethics, occupational health and safety and environmental protection”, without commenting on its gold purchases from this refinery.
‘Refineries are not asked to carry out scientific analyses of water quality and air pollution near mines’
Marc Ummel, head of the raw materials sector at the NGO Swissaid, says there’s a problem with the “due diligence” Swiss refineries are required to conduct before entering into a contract with a mining company:
The problem with refineries’ due diligence is that it is still based far too often on simply requesting documents from their suppliers or mining groups, but not on any real control or inspection of mining sites.
They carry out on-site inspections, but often don’t realize what the problem is, because they don’t talk to the local communities suffering the negative effects of the mine. In the end, the requirement for refineries’ due diligence are quite basic. They are not asked to carry out scientific analyses of water quality or air pollution at the mines they source from. They are simply asked to carry out checks to identify risks, prevent them and mitigate their negative impact.
When a government shuts down a mine because of pollution problems or human rights violations, the situation is very concerning. A state has no interest in suspending the activities of a mine, as it will generally lose revenue.
The six Abzas Media journalists face up to eight years’ imprisonment. As well as investigating the Gedabek mine, they had been looking into the corruption and torture used by the Azerbaijani government. The six face charges of “foreign currency trafficking”.
Producing around 1,200 kilos of gold a year, the Gedabek mine remains a relatively modest operation compared with other gold mines around the world. But in this remote region of Azerbaijan, it had raised hopes. A decade after it opened, hope has given way to fear and suspicion, fueled by the violent repression of 100 protesters in June 2023 and the effective blocking of journalists’ efforts to investigate allegations of pollution. The site is now cordoned off by Azerbaijani police, inaccessible to journalists or activists. While it is not possible to say for sure whether the pollution is real, the case seems to make the Azerbaijani authorities uncomfortable, to say the least, and raises questions in a country that claims to make the environment a priority – and will host the COP 29 climate change conference in December 2024.
Article written in collaboration with Léa Perruchon, Leyla Mustafayeva, Lamiya Adilgizi, Sofía Alvarez Jurado (Forbidden Stories), Virginie Pironon (Radio France) and François Rüchti (RTS).